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Travel to Arizona’s ‘Mystery of the Desert,’ to see ‘The Thing?’

If your idea for a last minute summer getaway involves aliens, dinosaurs, and conspiracy theories, I know just the place.

The stretch of I-10 between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona, is unique. In the 275 miles you’ll find beautiful desert landscape and only a small handful of towns, some which are mostly or totally abandoned. From the eerie dust storm signage in the barren land of New Mexico’s Animas Valley, to the humongous, precariously stacked boulders at Arizona’s Texas Canyon, there’s always something amazing to peep out.

The diversity of the land is, to be honest, completely ridiculous, in the most incredible ways. But, there are some eyesores. Rusting hunks of toppled train cars, tons of shredded, rotted out RVs (mainly Winnebagos; my husband made a game out of it. We’re weird, okay?) left randomly on homesteads, and the never-ending onslaught of billboards for tourist trap truck stops were blemishes on the gorgeous scenery. Billboard after billboard, mile after mile — you couldn’t NOT see them They were constant companions.

“Mystery of the Desert!”

They all referenced something known as “The Thing?” and a few had pictures of dinosaurs, or aliens. They shrieked in bright yellow and blue for what felt like eternity, and eventually my curiosity got the best of me. At the request (read: nagging) of my kid, I took to the internet and found some reviews and a recent field interview on Roadside America. We talked it over as family and decided it might be entertaining to check out.

“The Thing?” is nestled inside a full-on “Bowlin’s Travel Center” truck stop with gas pumps and a convenience store, and there’s also a small Dairy Queen and a huge souvenir shop inside. It’s probably worth mentioning that it wasn’t always this way. According to AZCentral (FYI- massive spoiler alerts!!!) there was a major remodel in 2018 under new managers Kit Johnson and Myles Erwin.

According to the older reviews I read, and Johnson and Erwin themselves, the pre-renovated attraction was outdated and seemed like a collection of random crap thrown together. They decided they needed a good narrative to draw people in. After brainstorming theme ideas, they finally settled on one of sci-fi conspiracy theory.

The story goes that aliens came to Earth and ruled the dinosaurs. After war erupted between the aliens and dinosaurs, a huge asteroid was flung at the planet to end it all. Some aliens survived and have lived here ever since, influencing and interfering in human events, all the way from ancient Greece to World War II, and beyond. It’s nonsensical and crazy, but you know what? It was fun, weird, and, quite frankly, awesome.

My first impression when I walked into the travel center was one of doubt; everything is branded with “The Thing?” It felt pretty cheesy, but we headed straight back to the attraction anyway. There is a fee, $5.00 per adult or $10.00 for a family. We almost didn’t go in. We didn’t want to disappoint our kiddo who, at this point, was so hyped that he could hardly stand it. So through the door we went.

“What if…?”

In what may be the least unusual part of the whole collection, the first thing you see is a giant statue of an alien riding a dinosaur. You’ll begin your journey through time in the Mesozoic Era, learning how alien technology could be attached to dinosaurs to make them docile. The dinosaur revolution occurs and there is war involving a T-Rex and some aliens with ray-guns. It’s WILD. The aftermath has a faction of aliens working hard to save native Earth species and assisting in renewing life on the planet.

As you move forward, the dawn of humans occurs and the aliens are always helping behind the scenes. A warmongering race of extraterrestrials returns to cause trouble, and so begins the conflicts between human civilizations and empires. From Egypt through Greece, into the Roman and British empires, the aliens were always influencing us into war. America came around and the two alien races battled it out in Civil War, with the aggressor race losing the fight and helping to create the much stronger nation we live in today.

Somehow the evil aliens stayed hard at work, unnoticed, for years, causing The Great Depression and eventually manipulating us into World War II by controlling Adolf Hitler. At least that’s what I got out of it. The good alien race assisted British prime minister Winston Churchill, helping him to secretly gauge Nazi attacks. Also, they supposedly met with American leaders. A conspiracy theory about an artifact from an ancient civilization being found in Arizona is mentioned here, a teaser for “The Thing” that you see at the end of the exhibit.

The exhibit ends abruptly after the Allies win the war. Suddenly, you’re faced with a wall of questions to your left: What if aliens manipulated all of human history? What if humans could have descended from an alien race? What if they control our minds? On the opposing wall is a huge map of every conspiracy that you could probably think of. All of them are somehow linked to the existence of the alien races that came before us and aided us throughout history.

The takeaway

The conspiracy wall has everything from the Flat Earth Society and the Illuminati to the JFK assassination and 9/11 attacks. After you take this all in, you’re directed to the final room, which is made to look like a mine shaft. It’s dark, with a lighted box in the wall.

This is what you came for. You can’t get very close and it’s hard to see, but it looks like a mummified being with a hat laid upon it. “Here lies…The Thing?” And … that’s it.

Okay, so it was a huge buildup for something ridiculous. But it was fun. And it was cool. And it was, well, weird. So despite the less-than-exciting finale, it was worth it. Does it bother me that someone might actually believe in these ideas? Not really. Just the fact that a place like this can exist is pretty amazing.

It excited the child within and asked me to suspend my belief for a moment. No, there is no real science and the history is only loosely — very loosely — based in reality, but I’d go again, if for nothing else than to check out the fun displays of aliens and dinosaurs. So if you ever find yourself barreling down I-10 with about 30 minutes to spare, check it out and prepare to be slightly underwhelmed, but entertained overall.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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